HL Deb 06 May 1947 vol 147 cc377-84

2.46 p.m.


My Lords, the object of this Resolution is to obtain the approval of the House to the continuance for a further period of the powers conferred upon the Governor of Burma by Section 139 of the Government of Burma Act, 1935. Your Lordships will remember that it was agreed that during the period of transition which will elapse before the new Constitution for Burma becomes operative, the government of Burma will continue to be carried on, as it was during the war, subject to the direct rule of the Governor. But unless both Houses of Parliament renew, before June 10 of this year, the authority of the Governor to use his emergency powers, these powers will automatically lapse and there will be no legally constituted authority in Burma. A Resolution in this sense was passed in another place on May 2, and I am asking your Lordships to do likewise to-day. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House approves the continuance in force of the Proclamation issued under Section 139 of the Government of Burma Act of 1935 by the Governor of Burma on December 10, 1942, a copy of which was presented to this House on February 9, 1943.—(The Earl of Listowel.)

2.48 p.m.


My Lords, I do not know whether it would be convenient, as there are two Motions on the Order Paper, if at this stage one were to put one or two questions about Burma. Then the noble Earl could either, with the have of the House, speak again, or, after any such debate as there may be, make his reply on the second Motion. The two really overlap. I want to initiate a rather general discussion, such as was had in another place, and to put these questions. I am sure the House will give its assent to both the Motions which are before it. The Governor must have these powers continued until the new régime comes into being. Equally the whole House, whatever feelings of misgiving may be entertained, will wish well the experiment which will follow upon the expiry of the Governor's temporary powers and which is dealt with in the other Motion. But I think it would be unwise for us or for Burma to underrate the great difficulties which lie ahead. The post-war problems of a devastated and disordered country would tax the most experienced Government, and, with all the good-will in the world, no one can say that the new Burmese Government, when it comes into being, can have had great experience such as they will require in their testing time. All the help and advice that can be given will, I am sure, be forthcoming, and will, I hope, be welcomed.

There are two or three definite questions I would like to put to the Secretary of State. First of all can he tell us something about the actual economic position in that country to-day? It was devastated by the enemy, and then we ourselves had to cause a good deal of devastation: first when the Japanese invaded, and then when the Japanese were driven out. The House, I am sure, would be interested to know what progress has been made in restoration, because upon that progress depend the economic and trade prospects of that country.

Then I would ask: What is the financial position, and what is our liability? If I have the figures right, the estimated deficit in the Budget, leaving aside all the sums which have been advanced—they are called loans and I have no doubt they are irrecoverable—is something like 14,5oo,000. Before the war the whole Budget of Burma was a smaller figure than that. I would also ask the noble Earl, what has happened to the£15,000,000 loan which I think was given by this country. The past is the past, and no doubt your Lordships will be more interested in our commitments in the future, because we have these commitments all over the world and they are serious, and we are not getting richer. Of course, if we have made any firm commitments, we must discharge them. I am not saying that it would not be right for this country, after carefully considering their amount and purpose, to make other commitments of loans to Burma; but I think the Secretary of State will agree that if we are to be called up[...]n to make further financial commitments we not only have a right to say what those commitments should cover, and to what purpose they should be devoted, but we ought to have some power to see that the money is wisely and prudently spent in accordance with these plans.

The three exports of Burma, upon which all its economic prosperity depends, are, first and foremost, rice; then oil, and then teak. The export of rice was enormous. I think I am right in saying that before the war the exportable surplus of rice in Burma was something like 3,000,000 tons. That was very valuable economically to Burma; it was also extremely important to India and to Malaya. And, indirectly, it is now of great importance to the rest of the world, even people who are not rice-eating, because if the rice is not forth-coming from Burma for the countries which need it, then those countries go on to what I believe is called the General Cereal Pool. That affects even us in this country, in our bread rationing. It is, therefore, of common interest to all of us that the full production of rice in Burma should be restored as soon as possible. I believe the estimate for 1947 is an exportable surplus of 750,000 tons, and that the estimate for the following year is something like double, 1,500,000 tons. Even so, that is only half the pre-war surplus. It is one thing to produce it and another, if there is a surplus, to move it. There has been tremendous devastation of railways and the great bridges have been broken down. In that connexion I would like to ask the noble Earl whether he is satisfied that if this surplus is produced it will be possible to move it to the ports. Once it is taken to the ports I believe the difficulty will be over, but one of the most difficult problems will be to get it down to the one or two ports from which it can be shipped.

I am taking points rather disjointedly, and yet they are all connected. There are what are called the Secretary of State's Services, the civil servants in Burma. We had a statement from the Secretary of State the other day about the position of the public servants in India. I am sure he would agree that there should be no avoidable delay in making a similar pronouncement to the civil servants in Burma; so that they may know what their position is. Burma will certainly need administrative experience and trade co-operation, but to get both, the people concerned must know where they stand. You cannot get trade co-operation, and I do not think you can expect to get administrative co-operation, unless Burma and the British Government together are able to give firm assurances as to what the future will hold. Whether it be business experience or, in cases like oil and teak, highly technical experience, it should be forthcoming. Neither do I think you can expect to get the co-operation of the civil servants; yet both are vital.

There are two further matters. As those who know it so much better than I do (knowing it only at second-hand) will agree, Burma is not a single unified place. There are the difficulties of the Karen people in the centre, and there are the tribes of the north, many of whom stood by us extraordinarily well, and some of whom have old indigenous constitutional developments, who have run themselves rather effectively in the past under a form of indirect rule with wise British guidance, and who would naturally wish that their developments within any unified Burma should be on their natural lines. After all, that is a thing with which, in the British Colonial Empire and the British Commonwealth, we are very familiar. We do not want these constitutional developments to occur just on "sealed pattern" lines. The secret of success—and I know the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, holds this view as strongly as I do—is the natural development of the best of the past with the proper reforms of the future. I think your Lordships' House would like an assurance that these tribes will be safeguarded in what is, for them, the best and most natural development, and safeguarded not merely on paper but in fact. Behind all I have said of the economic needs of Burma and of its administrative needs, and in all I am saving, I wish the experiment well.

The other prerequisite without which none of these can really go forward or succeed is the preservation of law and order. Even under wise British administration, Burma has not always been a very orderly place. Dacoity is one of the Burmese industries; or if not an industry it has been a very popular hobby. There have been rather alarming accounts; the Secretary of State will be able to tell us how far they are true and how far they are exaggerated. In the disordered state of the country, dacoity has been expanding by leaps and bounds. I would not be surprised if that were true, and I do not make it a great ground of condemnation of the Burmese. After all, in London itself to-day there is a certain amount of disorder going on. One becomes a bit nervous when the police are "shot up," and citizens have pistols put in their backs. We thought these things did not happen this side of the Atlantic; we were a little complacent.

I would add only this. Law and order must be preserved, but we cannot achieve that by a system of private armies. I am sure the Secretary of State will fully agree with that. I do not like private armies in British Burma—and I trust Burma will remain in the British Commonwealth. Neither in Europe, nor in Asia is a private army a good foundation of security or guarantee of democratic government; these must rest on good will and firm, orderly administration, conducted by the proper Government.

3.2 p.m.


My Lords, I am not sure whether I should be so bold as to ask your Lordships' leave to speak again, because I was quite unprepared beyond my initial remarks.


There was a full debate in the other place, where the Under-Secretary dealt with many of these matters, and I thought the Secretary of State would naturally expect the same kind of debate here.


I was merely apologizing in advance for what can obviously be only a fragmentary and random answer to the observations that have been made by the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton. I do assure him that if I am not able to answer fully the points that he has made, I will examine them very carefully. I am grateful to him for what he has said, because I am quite certain it will be of value to me. I should like to thank him for his views on Burma, because I am quite sure they will be encouraging to the people who are responsible for the Government of Burma at this moment. I think your Lordships know that Burma was far more unfortunate than most of the countries that were involved in the late war. The explanation of her present economic position is that two campaigns were fought on Burmese soil; one when the Japanese came in, and the other when the Japanese were driven out. That has resulted in an amount of devastation which will obviously take years to remove. A period of reconstruction has begun, but we cannot expect Burma to be restored, for several years at least, to her pre-war level of prosperity.

As the noble Viscount remarked at the outset, the staple crop of Burma is rice, and the prosperity of Burma is bound up with the rice crop. It is very satisfactory to know that there was a surplus of about 750,000 tons in the current year—although that falls fir short of the prewar surplus. But, of course, the cultivation of rice has been immensely handicapped by what happened during the war. For instance, the Burmese lost a very large proportion of the oxen which they use for tilling the fields, and without which the rice cannot be sown. Again, very large areas went out of cultivation, and it will take some time before they can be brought back in-to cultivation. Furthermore, the reference which the noble Viscount made to dacoity has a bearing on the cultivation of rice, because unless people can feet they are safe in going out and tending their fields, and that they can move about through the fields without molestation, they will clearly leave undeveloped areas which might otherwise be productive of substantial crops of rice. The noble Viscount also referred to the oil and teak industries. Our scorched earth policy resulted in the destruction of the oil wells, and they will need repairing before Burmese oil is available. The teak industry also will have to be revived by personnel and equipment, which were not available during the war years. But I assure the noble Viscount that the present authorities in Burma are acutely conscious of the need for reviving this industry and restoring the prosperity of their country.

I agree with the noble Viscount that one of the most severe handicaps is the lack of transport. The Irawaddy flotilla was almost completely lost—and of course water transport is one of the main features of transport in Burma. Therefore it is essential to obtain the boats used in river transport, and it is also necessary to get the rolling stock needed for the railways, to get them properly restored. The financial position of Burma, to which the noble Viscount referred, is again another direct result of what has been happening in the last few years. I would say, in a general way, that I hope that in this matter of finance, arising out of our obligations for the defence of Burma, in the discharge of those responsibilities, and in our attitude to the Burmese, we shall show the generosity which is due to Burma. We are under an obligation to help her to stand upright again on her own feet.

The noble Viscount referred to the position of the Secretary of State's services. I am glad he did so. I can assure him that discussions are going on at the moment in regard to the terms of service for those who wish to stay in Burma, and about compensation for those who wish to retire. I hope to be able to make a statement, on similar lines to the statement made with regard to India, in the near future. As I am sure the noble Viscount will agree, I cannot go further at this moment.

Then the noble Viscount referred to the peoples of the frontier areas. These are very gallant and vigorous peoples, and we are most anxious to ensure that they will have their rightful place in the new Burma. I must acknowledge the debt that we owe to Mr. Rees-Williams for going out to Burma and for presiding over the Committee of Inquiry whose object was to find out in what way the peoples of the frontier areas could be associated with Ministerial Burma in drawing up the new Constitution, and for the Report which the Committee have produced. I think it is extremely satisfactory that these peoples have decided—entirely of their own free will, of course—to be associated with the Constituent Assembly. They are absolutely free to choose whether they wish to become part of United Burma, or whether they prefer to stay out. That is a matter that rests in their hands, but it is a good sign of the degree of mutual good will and co-operation that exits throughout Burma that they should be prepared to sit with the representatives of Ministerial Burma in the Constituent Assembly.

I fear that I have covered only some of the points raised by the noble Viscount, but I should like, in conclusion, to thank him for the good will that he has expressed towards Burma, and to say that I very much hope I shall have the assistance of the whole House in this extremely difficult job of helping Burma to her feet again after the appalling devastation of the war.

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that we are all very much obliged to the Secretary of State for India and Burma for having given us the information to which we have just listened. There is one question that gives me a good deal of anxiety, and that is the question of the Karens. To me it has always seemed a more difficult question than the question of the frontier districts. There is this great community in Burma itself, not upon the edge of the country. Though I am without any detailed information, I have the uneasy feeling that, taken as a whole, the Karens are dissatisfied with their present representation in the Constituent Assembly. If that be so, I would ask the Secretary of State to give very sympathetic attention to their position. During the war there was no community in Burma that helped us more effectively. Throughout all those years they stuck to us in a most remarkable way. I hope, therefore, that in the arrangements that are being made in Burma care will be taken to ensure that they have an opportunity of making their case, effectively and independently, and that we shall do our utmost to see that whatever may be the future arrangements in Burma they have the chance to play the part which is their due, having regard not only to their considerable numbers but also to their record of effort on behalf of the Empire and the Commonwealth.

On Question, Motion agreed to.